herald

Monday 11 December 2017

Joe can afford to take Italian gamble

Dillane and Healy offer Irish edge and try threat

Ultan Dillane in action against England on his Six Nations debut at Twickenham. Photo: Sportsfile
Ultan Dillane in action against England on his Six Nations debut at Twickenham. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht flier Matt Healy Photo: Sportsfile

Where do Ireland go from here?

For starters, Joe Schmidt will be tempted to keep looking into the future by staying with flanker Josh van der Flier and centre Stuart McCloskey and by jumping Ultan Dillane into the second row.

The innocence and enthusiasm of youth served Leinster's van der Flier and Ulster's McCloskey well as they faced into the challenge of their lives.

It was a moment of unity of purpose, each understanding the other's excitement at what was coming in the minutes before kick-off.

"We just said to each other, 'enjoy it, just try and take in the atmosphere,'" reflected van der Flier.

"Playing in Twickenham is unbelievable. We had just been focused on enjoying it and it helps that we were in the same boat."

What about the almost fabled step-up into elite international rugby?

"The first 10-20 minutes was a bit of a shock," he said

"Once I got used to the pace, got my second wind, it felt comfortable enough."

He was also consigned to the emotional conflict of winning his first cap in a gallant defeat.

"It is bitter-sweet, I suppose, really disappointed with the result, but loved every minute of the game.

"To get my first cap is a dream come true," he said.

Clear path

The fact Sean O'Brien is out for the last two matches at home to Italy and Scotland should clear the path for the 22 year-old to see out The Championship.

Coach Schmidt has already spoken in glowing terms of how the openside grew into the game to see out the full 80 minutes on his debut.

The introduction of another 22 year-old in Dillane meant a blast of impact from the novice second row that blew a hole right through Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole.

"I can't really remember how that came about. I guess they might have seen the skinny legs and didn't expect much there," he said

The Tralee man had been growing increasingly agitated in the stands as he waited for the call to make his debut.

The singing of "Swing Low" built up a volcanic force that erupted when he entered the arena in the 66th minute.

"That really got rid of the nerves," said Dillane. "I got a bit angry and got more in the zone. I was keen to come on at that point. I wanted to prove a point to a few people out there."

It should not be forgotten, however, that the Connacht lock came on when the intensity of the battle had waned somewhat.

This certainly appeared to be the case from his reaction to what he had been warned about.

"It crept into the mind in the last two weeks," he said, about the pace of international rugby.

"But, you know, it really wasn't that much of a difference from provincial rugby. It was a nice pace. I enjoyed it."

He could well look back on his impact as the watershed moment in his fledgling career.

Dillane has been released back to Connacht along with Robbie Henshaw, Nathan White, Kieran Marmion and Finlay Bealham and could play against Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Friday.

It would be interesting and instructive to see how he would handle the full focus of a start against the always physical Italians.

"Hopefully, we get another shot in a couple of weeks time," he wished.

Before the Six Nations, the level of competition for the wing slots was, as it always is, savagely competitive.

The injury to Tommy Bowe and then to Luke Fitzgerald put Connacht's try-machine Matt Healy in the conversation.

While Ireland have struggled for tries, Healy has kept his chin up and his strike rate too.

He can hardly have done more than drum up a try away to The Dragons, a hat-trick away to Zebre before going on to create the first for Bundee Aki and score the last against The Ospreys on Saturday evening.

It all adds up to five tries in three matches for Healy as he forged two clear of Leinster's Isa Nacewa in leading the PRO12 League try charts with nine tries.

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